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Friday
Jul282017

More Than Just a Baby Duesenberg, an Icon

By William G. Sawyer, Contributing Editor

All photos © Hyman Ltd.

This sketch, created for a GM design competition by Gordon Buehrig, eventually led to the Cord 810/812.Imagine a new technology emerges that alters the status quo. Young men in their late Twenties unencumbered by antiquated thinking rapidly rise to positions of power in the “new” economy. Onlookers unable to grasp the future stand mute as the upstarts — aided by greedy financiers spellbound by their success — take control of vertical markets and create virtual monopolies.

If you think I’m describing the Internet Age you’re wrong. It’s the early days of the automobile industry, the template for much of what has happened in recent decades. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook founder Jeff Zuckerberg, and their ilk are doppelgangers of many of the men who rose to prominence in the first third of the Twentieth Century — none more than Errett Lobban (E.L.) Cord, a brash kid who turned a flair for sales into a 150 company financial empire by the time he was in his mid-Thirties.

Born in Warrensburg, Missouri in 1894, Cord’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was in high school. An industrious lad, Cord combined his fascination with the automobile with a dash of Hollywood theatrics and a willingness to do whatever it took to earn a dime. He washed and repaired automobiles and built and drove race cars, although the dimes he chased grew much larger when he discovered his talent for salesmanship.

This is how Harold T. Ames, Duesenberg’s vice-president-of-sales, explained Cord’s rise in a speech to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club on September 1, 1963:

“In January, 1919, at the end of World War I, and after my service in the Air Force, I returned to Michigan Avenue, Chicago, to resume the job that I had before the War, which was selling Chandler Automobiles. A month later, a young man by the name of E.L. Cord joined our sales force and became my roommate in a Southside hotel. He was a very excellent salesman, and after three or four years, accumulated enough money to get interested in acquiring an interest in an automobile company. There were several hundred of them in those days, many of them in dire financial straits.

“The old Fort Dearborn Bank of Chicago, through forfeiture of collateral on an unpaid loan of the Auburn Automobile Company, acquired control of that Company. Although they had no idea that an unknown young man, by the name of E. L. Cord, could prove to be of any interest to them in helping to liquidate their loan, through the intercession of one of their Directors, the Board of Directors agreed to give him a hearing. Cord and a young artist, whose name I cannot remember, drew some beautiful pictures of a new Auburn which Cord displayed to them on a big easel in the Directors' Room, together with specifications, and cost, and proposed selling prices. These Auburns, painted in two and three rather loud colors, and they really were loud when you consider that all automobiles were black in those days, made quite an impression. Sufficiently so, that he became the new Vice President of Auburn Automobile Company, with authority to liquidate old inventories for enough money to build this new unusual car.”

Cord took the job in 1924 without salary. Instead, he received 20% of the profit, and an option to buy controlling interest of the manufacturer that sold only 175 cars in the year prior to Cord’s tenure. He re-painted the unsold inventory in flamboyant colors and embarked on a sales blitz that cleared the backlog, providing much needed investment capital. He became President of Auburn and gained control of the car company in 1926.

In 1929 Mr. Cord formed Cord Corporation, a holding company, and went on a buying spree, concentrating chiefly on the transportation sector he sought to dominate. Companies Cord Corporation acquired included Duesenberg, American Airways (now American Airlines), Lycoming engines, N.Y. Shipbuilding, Checker Cab, and Stinson Aircraft.  The car company managed to survive the early days of the Great Depression, but by 1933, Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg sales were suffering. Amazingly, Mr. Cord chose that economically challenged year to build Cordhaven, a 16 bedroom, 32,000 square foot estate on 18 prime acres in Beverly Hills, CA.

Harold T. Ames, impressed by Cadillac’s slightly down market venture with the LaSalle nameplate, as well as Packard’s similar gambit with their Junior series, invited Gordon Buehrig, a former Duesenberg stylist, to re-join the company. Buehrig, a bit of a vagabond in the car business, was disenchanted with his second stint at GM where he butted heads with Harley Earl, the opinionated showman who headed GM Art & Colour. Buehrig showed Ames a concept he created that was loved by his fellow GM stylists, but finished dead last in one of Earl’s in-house design contests. To say it was revolutionary is an understatement. In fact, its narrow, pointed nose, pontoon fenders, and radiators nestled between the enclosed engine compartment and front fenders could be considered precursors of many of today’s endurance racers and the supercars that emulate them. Ahead of the hood and radiators was a flat area that likely provided unintended frontal downforce. Aerodynamic efficiency wasn’t Buerhig’s goal, however. His stated purpose was to create a design that removed the radiators from the engine compartment, resulting in a power plant free of the dust and dirt that accompany airflow through the grille area. Such an engine compartment could be stylized as a showpiece proud owners could display and admire.

Ames loved the idea of a car that wasn’t designed around the radiator. He even joked that, since the traditional upright radiator shell was absent, you could put anything on the front, including FDR’s face. Apparently, political satire was as popular in the Thirties as it is today.

Fate intervened when Ames was transferred to Auburn from Duesenberg, bringing Buerhig along with him. Ames saw his “Baby Duesenberg” project as the perfect vehicle to re-ignite sales on the Auburn-Cord side of the corporation.

In January, 1935 Ames brazenly asked the Board of Directors of the struggling company to approve $2 million to develop his new baby. Smarting from a $4 million loss the previous year, the Cord Corporation Board eventually agreed to a bond issue in an attempt to raise the cash. Two months later, Auburn subsidiary Central Manufacturing took on a half-million-dollar contract to build kitchen cabinets for Montgomery Ward, easing the financial strain. The bond issue that was to fund the development of the Cord 810 was a failure, but enthusiasm for the watered-down, but still revolutionary, Buerhig design ran high. Five prototypes were rushed toward completion. One, designated e-306 #2, raced to Los Angeles and back to Auburn, Indiana on a shakedown cruise. E. L. Cord himself had relatively little to do with the dramatic new vehicle. Threats against his children, management of Cord Corporation, and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation over questionable practices regarding his investment in Checker Cab took most of his time. In fact, Mr. Cord had divested most of his personal stock in Auburn, although he still served as Chairman of the corporation that controlled it. While e-306-#2 was in Los Angeles, Mr. Cord took an extended test drive. One hundred miles from home the transmission overheated and seized, leaving him stranded by the side of the road. Engineers eventually determined that the addition of a pressure pump and a reduction in the amount of lubricant would eliminate the problem that embarrassed them in front of the boss.

In November, 1935 the Cord was the hit of the New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles auto shows. It was a revelation with a low-slung streamlined body, pontoon fenders, and lack of running boards or an upright grille. This thrilled Depression Era show goers who were enthralled by this omen of a brighter future. Inside, an engine-turned instrument panel, pleated broadcloth upholstery with contrasting piping, and a plastic steering wheel molded in the same color as the accent piping on the seats made other cars at the shows look downright unimaginative. Over 7,500 prospective buyers flooded the company with requests for information. It was a joyous and frightening debut for a company gambling its future on the 810. Immediate sales were necessary, but the hectic rush to market left little time to perfect the product. Bowing to pressure, orders were taken for Christmas delivery even though Ames knew those customers would be disappointed. In order to placate them when production couldn’t keep up with his promises, Ames sent them brass models of the daring car they lusted after, along with an apology letter.

1936 proved to be what the software industry refers to as a beta test. Many of the 1000+ cars delivered that year were plagued with transmissions that occasionally shifted into neutral without provocation, noisy fuel pumps, vapor lock, and disappointing performance. Still, the company stayed the course, convinced an improved version, now named the 812 for 1937, would overcome bad publicity and realize the dramatic car’s potential. Now offered in six body styles, including a rather crudely attached bustle-back trunk on some models to placate customer’s disappointment over its lack of luggage capacity, The 812 also offered extended wheelbase versions to create additional legroom in back, and a slightly raised roof line. Those willing to pay a bit over $400 — a massive amount of money at the time — for a supercharger with chrome plated external exhaust pipes no longer complained about performance. They were driving one of the fastest cars of its day.

Unfortunately, it was too little too late. That same year, E. L. Cord and Morris Markin, President of Checker, were exonerated of stock manipulation on a variety of charges, including a transaction that saw the two buy 70,000 Checker shares at $7, which they unloaded for an average price of $59 once their gambit artificially inflated the share price. The same day as the verdict, E. L. Cord sold his 30% share in the Cord Corporation for $2.6 million. The new leadership decided to cease Cord production and Auburn went into receivership the following year. Reorganized as Auburn-Central, the company concentrated on manufacturing products as diverse as kitchen cabinets, Jeep bodies, bomber parts, and dishwashers. It closed its doors in 1975.

Will the tech industry follow their predecessor down the rabbit hole that swallowed the car industry in the 1930s? Was the Great Recession of 2008 a harbinger of a larger, more devastating financial crisis as some predict? Is World War III imminent? Or will Amazon’s quest to conquer the world of commerce succeed?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Hyman Ltd. In Cord’s home state of Missouri (www.hymanltd.com) has a stunning — and unique — 1937 Cord 812 Custom Berline Chassis #10217B on offer. A top of the line model complete with a roll-down window separating the rear passengers from the driver in true limousine style, it is the only Cord ever built on a 135 in. wheelbase, a full three inches longer than the already lengthened Berline model. Fitted with a normally aspirated 289 in.3 Lycoming V-8, it nevertheless sports the external exhaust normally found on supercharged versions, apparently for cosmetic purposes. Believed to have been the personal transport of the Cord family when new, it won a number of coveted awards from the Antique Automobile Club of America as well as the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club.

As unique as its namesake, the Cord 810/812 is highly coveted by collectors, many of whom followed a path similar to that of E. L. Cord in their quest for wealth. The car’s brash presentation during a time of severe economic strife, disruptive styling, and forward-thinking — if flawed — engineering, make this one of a kind 1937 Cord 812 Custom Berline an exciting addition to the Virtual Collection.

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